Bolivian coca eradication effort `making history'

Officials say country could be first to halt illicit drug production


PRIMERO DE MAYO, Bolivia -- Ever since drought drove his family from a rocky cornfield high in the Andes 15 years ago, Espinosa Leon has been chopping down tropical rain forest to grow coca bushes, which produce cocaine. Now, at 38, Leon finds himself at another crossroads.

"The army is coming any day to destroy my last coca," said Leon, who had already slashed three-quarters of his crop in recent months in exchange for aid from United Nations technicians forming a forestry project here. "I don't have to like it, but coca has no future."

For the past decade, Leon's turnaround would have been the rare exception in Bolivia, a country that has been a sponge for more than $500 million in international money to fight the drug trade, mostly paid by U.S. taxpayers.

But life is fast changing in the Chapare lowlands, where only a few years ago drug dealers weighed coca paste on scales openly in the street and drug money flowed so freely that peasants drank Chivas Regal.

Now the Chivas days are over. CIA satellite surveys indicate that last year Bolivia eradicated coca from 25 percent of the land where it was grown in the Chapare, a region the size of New Jersey that supplies 90 percent of the country's illicit exports.

That pace has accelerated so far this year and new plantings are increasingly scarce, senior U.S. officials say. These officials say they are beginning to believe President Hugo Banzer might fulfill his pledge to eradicate all Bolivia's illegal coca crop by the end of his term in late 2002.

"Bolivia is making history," said Donna Hrinak, the U.S. ambassador in La Paz. "Bolivia has the potential of becoming the first country ever to stop producing illegal drugs. A year ago, no one in the U.S. government would have come out and said that."

Anthony P. Placido, chief of the Drug Enforcement Administration operations in Bolivia, went further: "The planets and stars are in alignment to take Bolivia out of the drug circuit."

But even the most optimistic U.S. officials concede that the gains in Bolivia, and similar ones in Peru, have had little or no impact on the availability of cocaine or its price or use in the United States, in large part because growers in Colombia have filled the gap.

But even if the decline in coca growing here does not significantly affect the world's drug trade, Bolivian officials say, they have their own reasons for eliminating the crop.

Drying up a well for government and judicial corruption is foremost among them, along with improving what even they concede is a miserable international reputation that discourages foreign investment.

Pub Date: 5/09/99

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